Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truthiness is still alive and strong

Frank Rich has an interesting column this week in defense of Richard Heene, the 'Balloon Boy' dad. Not because Heene is any kind of great dad, rather because "Heene is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where 'news,' 'reality' television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking."

This column is an extrapolation of the themes Rich explored in his 2006 book The Greatest Story Ever Sold, a work that helped define the meaning of truthiness -- truth derived from emotion rather than from fact -- just as well as any late-night comedian could have. Even though that particular word has been absent from the popular lexicon of late, Rich reminds us that it still very much describes our present reality.

"None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he’s not. He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated."

Also this week, the Democracy in America blog over at The Economist cited recent research to help explain some of the reactions of both global warming deniers and believers to the new book Superfreakonomics:

"People's pre-existing personality biases, (the researchers found), actually shape their beliefs about the factual reality of the world; more information is unlikely to produce consensus, because people tend to reject information that does not cohere with their worldview ...

We have a dynamic of political discourse that produces absolute belief in things that, often enough, aren't true."

That, too, is textbook truthiness. From-the-gut truth is no longer a cornerstone of American policy (for now at least) so the catastrophic danger of blind faith does not feel as urgent. But it's clear that we've become a society that willingly abandons the need for fact-based truth for the sake of self-satisfaction -- and a good show.

(Note: I'm not trying to say anything about the truth or truthiness behind global warming here or what is said in Superfreakonomics. That's a different discussion entirely. It just happens to be the subject matter of the above link.)

(Only tangentially related, but related all the same: Here is an interview Dan Savage of The Stranger did with Frank Rich recently that is worth a glance. Describes how and why pop songs changed from show tunes to rock songs around the time the Beatles came along.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Singapore leaders are either too cheap to recycle or too lazy

Last week, Singapore's infallible first Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was giving a talk at the Singapore Management University and was asked a question about why Singapore has fallen so far behind other industrialized Asian nations like Japan and South Korea on the recycling front. His answer? Too expensive:

On recycling, (MM Lee said) the main problem is that the single rubbish chute in every Housing and Development Board flat encourages residents to throw everything into it, instead of separating their recyclables from food waste as the Japanese, Taiwanese and South Koreans commonly do.

“We have thought about this very carefully, but just restructuring the buildings to make the lift stop on every floor...may cost nearly $100,000 per flat. You start putting two or three chutes into every flat, where do you find the space and what will it cost?” he asked.

True, Singapore has some green tendencies. Just this week it launched a Zero Energy Building, which produces as much energy as it uses and is the first such building in Southeast Asia. The country has also found a fairly innovate method for disposing of waste, at least for the short term. Trash is incinerated and then shipped to an island a few miles off the coast where the ashes are buried. The Semakau landfill also doubles as a rejuvenated nature preserve. But trash incineration, even though it supposedly also creates up to 3% of the total power generated in Singapore, is far from a sustainable way of getting rid of waste.

Still, Singapore is hardly known for its environmentalism. The most popular food courts serve their goods almost exclusively on Styrofoam plates with disposable chopsticks. Grocers may literally give you more plastic bags at checkout than actual products you're purchasing -- one small bag for the meat, one for the soap, another for the shampoo and so on, all placed in another large bag to carry all your (bagged) products. It's shocking, and I stand by with a watchful eye declining the excessive baggage. I usually leave an unneeded bag or two on the counter when I leave.

Recycling is such an easy way to reduce waste. It's a habit that's been drilled into my Western mindset, but it's one of the healthier habits I've developed. Recycling bins apparently exist across the island, but I can't recall ever seeing one. And without a vehicle, it's not exactly convenient to haul bulging bags of bottles and containers to some faraway receptacle.

At my apartment, we put bags of recyclables and stacks of newspapers outside our door or down in the basement, assuming they're picked up and properly deposited. But now I'm not so sure that whoever picks up those items doesn't just toss them in with the rest of the trash.

For MM Lee to be so flippant about even trying to promote recycling is troubling. The way he puts it, it'll just be too expensive to retrofit apartment buildings and that's the end of the discussion. All it would take is to have a collection bin at all apartment complexes, convenient enough for willing recyclers, and have waste management services swoop by on their regular routes. People may be lazy, but just because they can't currently toss recyclables down a shoot like they do other refuse doesn't mean recycling is a lost cause. For such an advanced Asian nation, Singapore's primitive attitude towards recycling is inexcusable.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Weed: The cancer of Humboldt County?

I just watched the A&E documentary "Pot City, USA", a fear-inducing chronicle of grow houses in Arcata, Humboldt, NorCal.

Watch Part 1. (Thanks NCJ!)

Watch Part 2.

Watch Part 3.

Watch Part 4.

Having not lived in Arcata for nearly four years now, I honestly don't know what the situation has become. This documentary feels a bit sensationalized, complete with dramatic and emotive music and fast cuts. But it also seems pretty accurate when compared to what I've read elsewhere.

Many pot growers (and way too many smokers) often have a misguided sense of entitlement to do what they do simply because they think they're fighting against the injustice of prohibition. The feeling is all the more righteous in Humboldt because pot is quasi-legal there, or at least hyper-tolerated. It's really a shame to see the destruction, as depicted in the documentary, that some of these grow-ops have wrought. I guess I never realized how much damage a careless grower can do to a house -- the mold, the fire danger, the rot. Growers I've known are just more responsible than some, I suppose.

It seems to me that the main problem here is the quasi-legality of pot. Even before it reached that status with the passage of Prop 215, which made medical marijuana legal in California, Humboldt was a haven for pot growers. I also don't know what things were like in the years before 215, but I don't think it was any worse than what's shown in the documentary in terms of number of grow houses. After 215, my guess is that Humboldt's reputation attracted a new wave of growers eager to exploit the already liberal attitude.

But the fact that the drug was/is still technically illegal means growers can still rake in the cash. They have been able to operate in this grey area where pot is both legal and illegal -- liberalized laws make it easier to grow but growers can still get paid from the unregulated black market. A perfect storm, if you will.

One more argument, it seems, for why pot should be fully legalized and regulated -- it's an all-or-nothing endeavor. As mentioned at the end of the documentary, if pot was legalized, all those grow houses would cease to exist. I'm not entirely sure grow-ops would just up and vanish, but at the very least, the trade would not be so lucrative so reckless amateurs would be less inclined to rush up to Humboldt to make a quick buck. If growers had to register with authorities, for example, the potential for damage to a property would be significantly reduced, and if a house was trashed there would be a viable recourse.

It even looks like legalization could happen as soon as next year. Not holding my breath, but hey, California is a trend-setter.

It's clear that growing pot is not (always) a victim-less crime. But the victims would be far fewer if it was no longer a crime.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A tale of chaste sex-tourism in Cambodia

I was in Cambodia back in the summer. I wrote about it here.

But there is a sequel. It takes place in the seaside town of Sihanoukville. Here it is, at long last, finally published on The Tyee last week.